When conservatives run for the lifeboats

Posted: Mar 01, 2006 12:05 AM

Politics is the art of jumping. If you identify a popular cause, you jump on the bandwagon. And if you feel the political ship sinking beneath your feet, you jump off. If you spot a popular politician, you hop on his coattails. And if you see a politician heading for a train wreck, you hop off the train.

It's all about timing. Jumping on the wrong train can spell disaster. In the same way, hopping off of the QE2 in the mistaken belief that you're riding the Titanic can leave you bobbing in dangerous, shark-infested political waters without a lifejacket.

Clever politicians and pundits, therefore, try to find a way of hedging their bets. If they're unsure whether their political vessel is sinking or merely weathering a storm, they board the lifeboats and wait for more information. If the ship sinks, they can float safely away. And if the ship forges ahead, they can always head straight back to the buffet line.

During wartime, it is always the safest political move to go directly to the lifeboats. War is the riskiest of issues. If you stick with a losing war, your political career may be over -- just ask President Lyndon Johnson. If you can say "I told you so" while walking briskly from the fray, your political career may be on the upswing -- just ask obscure-senator-cum-presidential-candidate George McGovern.

Of course, if it is your party's president asking for loyalty during wartime, sprinting for the lifeboat becomes more difficult. And if your party's president has the trust of the American people on national security issues, sprinting for the lifeboat looks downright disreputable. If, however, that president becomes unpopular, especially with regard to his handling of national security, suddenly the lifeboat looks more appealing. You can present yourself as more concerned with national security than the president, while simultaneously grabbing your lifejacket.

That's where the conservative movement currently stands. In the midst of a war on terror, three years into the rebuilding effort in Iraq, many conservatives are edging toward the lifeboats. And with President Bush's United Arab Emirates port fiasco dominating the headlines, it's easier than ever for those conservatives to position themselves to the right of Bush on national security -- and as close as possible to the exits. When your party's president is riding at below 40 percent in the polls, when 7 out of 10 Americans (including 58 percent of Republicans) believe that allowing a U.A.E.-owned company to operate commercial activities at six ports is a bad idea, when 50 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the war on terror, when 62 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq is going badly, there's little political cost to straddling the line.

William F. Buckley, perhaps America's foremost conservative, is leading the charge toward the exits. This week, Buckley bluntly stated, "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed. … Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven't proved strong enough." This isn't exactly a shock, seeing as Buckley has always been skeptical about America's democratizing goals in Iraq. Still, his blunt defeatism is disheartening -- and indicative of a new political world in which conservatives eager for political gain undermine the war effort by preparing to jump ship.

Francis Fukuyama, originally an influential neo-conservative and a proponent of regime change in Iraq dating back to the halcyon days of President Clinton, now claims that neo-conservatism "should be discarded on to history's pile of discredited ideologies." As Rich Lowry of National Review rightly comments, "For a while now, everyone in the U.S. has been pre-positioning for what they will say in the event that the war really goes south." Thus, politics makes cowards of us all.

The lifeboat strategy is easy and safe for political actors. It is also damaging. If everyone runs for the lifeboats, there is no one left to man the ship. The QE2 becomes the Titanic by default. It is worthwhile arguing about strategy in Iraq and in the global war on terror. But honest strategic suggestions can be [lkm1]-- and must be -- distinguished from simple political positioning.